George Santayana was a philosopher, poet, critic, and best-selling novelist. He was born Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana in Madrid, Spain, on 16 December 1863. In 1872 his mother brought him to the United States, where he attended Boston Latin School and then Harvard University. At Harvard, he read and wrote poetry, studied philosophy with William James (1842–1910) and Josiah Royce (1855–1916), and graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in philosophy in 1886. That fall, as a graduate student at Harvard, he won a travelling fellowship and studied in Germany for 18 months. He attended philosophy lectures by Paul Deussen (1845–1919), Friedrich Paulsen (1846–1908), Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850–1909), and Georg von Gizyckij (1851–1895) at the University of Berlin. Returning to Harvard, he produced a doctoral dissertation under the direction Royce. Contrary to Santayana’s wish to write on Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), Royce assigned the philosophy Hermann Lotze (1817–1881), and in June 1889 Santayana received his Ph.D. in philosophy. That summer he contemplated entering the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study architecture, but instead he accepted the offer of an instructorship teaching philosophy at Harvard in the fall.
Santayana taught at Harvard for twenty years, becoming a professor and gaining the admiration of students for his well-crafted lectures. In 1912 he retired from Harvard and moved to Europe, never to return to the United States. For the next forty years he wrote prolifically and traveled constantly, except when prevented by war or age. After his departure from America, Santayana moved back and forth twenty-one times between Britain and the continent, until the outbreak of World War I in 1914 kept him in England.
In 1919 he was traveling again and had established an annual circuit that took him to France, Italy, and Spain. At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Santayana was trapped in Rome. Without access to his money in the United States, he took a room in the Clinica dell Piccola Compagna di Maria (Clinic of the Little Company of Mary) run by an order known popularly as the Blue Nuns. He would live here until his death on 26 September 1952.
During his life Santayana attained a degree of popularity largely unknown to present-day academic philosophers, appearing on the cover of Time magazine on 3 February 1936. While his exquisite literary style certainly contributed to his popular success, it also may have led to neglect of the study of his deeper philosophical insights including his historical analysis, theory of knowledge, metaphysical speculations, and the moral philosophy that underlay the cultural critique found in his best-selling novel, The Last Puritan, first published in 1935 in England and in 1936 in the United States.
Santayana had facility in many languages, was well-read in literature, and extremely knowledgeable about the history of philosophy. He often acknowledged his philosophical debt to Aristotle, Lucretius, and Spinoza; and the influence of William James and contemporary science and psychology are also apparent in Santayana’s thought.
In spite of his awareness of both traditional and contemporary philosophy, Santayana’s own writing does not parade this learning but instead, as John Lachs points out, it expresses his “own vision in his own language.” Santayana had observed of philosophy in America that it tended not “to bridge the chasm between what [one] believes in daily life and the ‘problems’ of philosophy.” By contrast Santayana believed that philosophy aims, first, at a systematic account of “the shrewd orthodoxy which the sentiment and practice of laymen maintain everywhere” and, second, at evoking “a distinct vision of the universe and definite convictions about human destiny” that “inspires and expresses the life of those who cherish it.” So, for Santayana, philosophy has a moral function and contributes to living a good life.
The argument for Santayana’s relevance for contemporary culture is strong. His profound sensitivity to aesthetic, religious, moral, and scientific aspects of culture, along with his two-fold status as Boston-raised Harvard professor and Spanish-born Catholic, gave him a critical insight into American culture. His simultaneous cultural status as insider and outsider allowed him to survive submersion in American cultural conditions he found suffocating largely because he also maintained a lifeline to an alternative tradition, that is, his Spanish and Catholic heritage. Santayana summed up the pernicious aspect of American culture in the phrase “the genteel tradition,” which he understood as a system of ideas that includes a largely unacknowledged Calvinism combined with a dogmatic import from German idealism. Santayana contended that this induces a kind of cultural delusion that keeps America from understanding what it is about, what its real strengths and weaknesses are, and leaves the culture conflicted and confused.
Santayana’s critique speaks to ongoing cultural conflicts between religious beliefs and scientific practices, and moral principles and business practices. In making his critique, and indeed in articulating his philosophical system, Santayana offered a view of the same world that so dismayed Henry Adams; but Santayana’s response to that world, if it is not more hopeful, is certainly more rational than the one given by Adams. Ultimately, the value of Santayana’s thought may lie in its stubborn dissimilarity from deeply-ingrained American sensibilities. Robert Dawidoff writes, “The staying power of Santayana’s analysis results from its irreducible challenge to any American cultural tradition that would co-opt it.” Santayana’s affectionate criticism of American philosophy and culture challenges the tradition to accept what it cannot accept which is to say it challenges it to grow and become more aware of itself.
Chronology of the Life and Work
Adapted from William G. Holzberger, “Chronology,” The Letters of George Santayana, 1:443–60; and modified in 2022 by Adrienne Harris Thomas.
1849 Josefina Borrás (c. 1826–1912), George Santayana’s mother, marries George Sturgis (1817–57) of Boston, aboard a British warship in Manila Bay.
1857 George Sturgis dies in Manila at age forty.
1862 Josefina Borrás Sturgis marries Agustín Santayana (1814–93) in Madrid.
1863 George Santayana born on 16 December at No. 69, Calle Ancha de San Bernardo, Madrid.
1864 Santayana christened Jorge Agustín Nicolás on 1 January in parish church of San Marcos, Madrid.
1868 (or 1869) Santayana’s mother, with daughters Susana and Josephine, moves to Boston, to honor her first husband’s wish that his children be raised in America (her son Robert had moved to Boston as a 13-year-old in 1867); Santayana remains with his father in Spain.
1872 Santayana and his father travel to America in June; his father returns to Ávila several months later.
1882 Santayana graduates from Boston Latin School; attends Harvard College in autumn.
1883 Santayana visits his father in Spain for first time since coming to America. Advised by William James at Harvard not to pursue philosophy.
1885 Meets John Francis (“Frank”) Stanley, 2d Earl Russell and elder brother of Bertrand Russell, who becomes a close friend.
1886 Santayana’s Bachelor of Arts degree is awarded summa cum laude and in absentia. Begins study in Germany.
1889 Santayana completes dissertation on “Lotze’s System of Philosophy” under direction of Josiah Royce; awarded Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees by Harvard University; begins as Instructor in Philosophy at Harvard.
1893 Santayana’s father dies at age 79 during summer in Ávila; Santayana’s student and friend Warwick Potter dies in October; at the end of this year Santayana undergoes his metanoia or fundamental change of heart, resulting in renunciation of the world. Spends a year at Cambridge University; appears in court in October to testify on behalf of Frank Russell, defending against charges by his estranged wife.
1897 Santayana resumes teaching at Harvard; lives with his mother.
1898 Santayana promoted from instructor to assistant professor.
1899 Santayana’s Lucifer: A Theological Tragedy published.
1900 Interpretations of Poetry and Religion published.
1904 Santayana sails from New York to Plymouth, England, in mid-July; visits Paris, Rome, Venice, Naples, Pompeii, Sicily, and Greece.
1905 Visits Egypt, Palestine, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Damascus, Baalbeck, Beirut, Athens, Constantinople, Budapest, and Vienna. While still abroad, Santayana invited by Harvard to become Hyde Lecturer at the Sorbonne for 1905–6. First four volumes of The Life of Reason; or, the Phases of Human Progress published.
1906 Fifth volume of The Life of Reason published. Santayana returns to America in September; resumes teaching at Harvard.
1907 Santayana promoted from assistant professor to full professor.
1910 Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe published as first volume in the series Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature.
1911 In April Santayana delivers his final lecture at Harvard. Travels to Wisconsin and California.
1912 Santayana departs America for the last time on 24 January. Mother dies on 5 February. Takes an extended holiday through Italy from September–November, finishing in Florence, Italy where he stays with his friends, the Berensons.
1913 Winds of Doctrine: Studies in Contemporary Opinion published in January while Santayana is in Monte Carlo. Travels to Brussels from 3-6 July to visit Baron Albert von Westenholz. Following this trip, the two men lose contact until 1920 because of the war.
1914 World War I breaks out; Santayana remains in England, with his home base in Oxford, until April 1919.
1915 Egotism in German Philosophy published (published in London in 1916.) Santayana moves to 22 Beaumont Street, Oxford, England, which becomes his permanent residence during the war.
1919 In June, Santayana leaves England for the first time since 1914. He travels to Paris and resides at Charles Strong’s apartment from 26 June to 26 November.
1920 Santayana begins spending winters in Rome; continues to summer in Paris, Ávila, Glion, at Lake Geneva, or Cortina d’Ampezzo. Character and Opinion in the United States published. “Three Proofs of Realism” published in Essays in Critical Realism: A Cooperative Study of the Problems of Knowledge.
1922 Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies published. Revised second edition of the five books of The Life of Reason published.
1923 “The Unknowable” delivered as the Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford in October. Scepticism and Animal Faith and the last collection of Santayana’s poetry to appear during his lifetime, Poems: Selected by the Author and Revised, are published in May and April respectively.
1925 Dialogues in Limbo published during the summer.
1927 Santayana meets Daniel Cory (age 22), who will become his assistant and friend. Platonism and the Spiritual Life published in April. The Realm of Essence: Book First of Realms of Being published in November.
1928 Santayana declines offer of the Norton Chair of Poetry at Harvard for 1928–29. Half-sister Susana dies in Ávila, on 10 February, at age 77.
1930 Half-sister Josephine dies in Ávila, on 15 October, at age 77. The Realm of Matter: Book Second of Realms of Being published in September.
1931 The Genteel Tradition at Bay published at the beginning of the year. In December, Santayana declines offer to become the William James Professor of Philosophy at Harvard.
1932 Santayana attends a philosophical congress commemorating the tercentenary of Spinoza’s birth, held at The Hague on 6–10 September; delivers a lecture on “Ultimate Religion.” Attends a meeting in London to commemorate the tercentenary of John Locke’s birth; on 19 October, delivers an address on “Locke and the Frontiers of Common Sense.”
1933 Some Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy published.
1935 The Last Puritan: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel published in London in October (published in New York in 1936).
1936 The Last Puritan becomes a Book-of-the-Month Club bestseller.
1937 The Realm of Truth: Book Third of Realms of Being published in London in October (published in New York in 1938).
1938 The first book-length biography published: George Santayana, by George Washburne Howgate.
1939 World War II breaks out in Europe; Santayana, denied a regular long- term visa by Swiss officials, decides to remain in Italy.
1940 The Realm of Spirit: Book Fourth of Realms of Being published. The Philosophy of George Santayana published in December.
1941 Santayana moves into a nursing home operated by the Blue Sisters of the Little Company of Mary, an order of Roman Catholic Irish nuns.
1944 Persons and Places published in December; becomes a bestseller.
1945 The Middle Span published. Santayana awarded the Nicholas Murray Butler Medal by Columbia University.
1946 The Idea of Christ in the Gospels; or, God in Man: A Critical Essay published.
1948 Dialogues in Limbo, With Three New Dialogues published.
1951 Dominations and Powers: Reflections on Liberty, Society, and Government published.
1952 On 4 June, Santayana falls on the steps of the Spanish Consulate in Rome; his injuries include three broken ribs and a bleeding head wound in addition to patches of pneumonia on the lungs; the physician is amazed by Santayana’s recovery. Santayana continues working until increasing blindness and illness make further labor impossible. On 26 September, Santayana dies of stomach cancer. On 30 September, his body is interred in the Tomb of the Spaniards.
1953 My Host the World published. The Posthumous Poems, together with two early plays, published as The Poet’s Testament: Poems and Two Plays.
1955 The Letters of George Santayana, a selection of two hundred and ninety-six letters to eighty-six recipients (edited by Daniel Cory), published.